I love romantic historical tales and have no idea why. Why would a woman (me) living in an era that affords females more power and choice than any time in history (now) fantasize about living in Regency England or medieval Scotland? To be sure, these stories, whether written in the past or present, all involve heroes and heroines of the genteel class. They may not be rich, but they are hardly what we would call poor either. So part of the fantasy may involve commanding a household of servants or living in a castle. But even if the best of all possible circumstances, life back in the day had some serious drawbacks that should send modern women running in terror.
For a control-freak like myself, I think one of the biggest problems with the life of a historical romance heroine would be the lack of choice and corresponding lack of control. Oh, you might get to choose what to wear and exercise control over the dinner menu, but you’d have very little choice in matters such as where you’d live and who you’d live with. And sleep with. An educated woman of even minor gentility could not choose a career to support herself. Even if she had scads of money (I’m sure there’s a more fitting period term, but you get the idea) she was still expected to make an appropriate marriage so her husband could manage that money. If she had little fortune, she had to marry it. Her only other choice would be to serve as a companion or governess, or to live with a family member or lover—all choices that involve dependence on a man. As a female, there was virtually no hope of being independent. Even a woman of means generally needed to marry to be fully accepted into society—and then her husband would control her money.
Now I do think that I am happy living in co-dependence with my husband. But in the back of my mind, I always have the knowledge that I have supported myself before and could do so again if necessary. To live in a society that offered no such option would be terrifying. So why do I like to read about it?
Is it the same kind of thrill I get from riding a roller coaster? After all, if I was speeding down a real mountain in a real runaway mine car, I don’t think I would find it nearly as entertaining.
Or do I conveniently ignore the lack of choice while I’m reading and fantasizing, just as I ignore the lack of indoor plumbing and central heat?
Since it is the lack of choice that creates so much of the drama in these stories, I guess I can’t say I ignore it. So it must be the thrill of escaping danger—in this case, the probable danger of an unhappy living situation.
Since the heroine in these books never settles happily ever after into a life teaching someone else’s children, the story must be about finding a loving husband despite near impossible odds. Think how much difficulty we have making relationships work in the modern era, where, thanks to the internet, the virtual pool of virtual mates is virtually limitless. By contrast, the Regency heroine gets to meet only: (1) the gentlemen in her neighborhood, (2) the rakes and boobies she dances with during her disappointing first season, and (3) the random dashing hero that crosses her path on page three when she’s given up hope of ever finding a man to capture her fancy. What are the odds that her marriage will end up happy?
Well, this is fiction, so the odds are a lot better than they were in real life.
So, like the ride on the Disney version of a runaway mine train, readers of historical romance get to experience a hint of danger with a safe ending that likely would not have happened had the experience been genuine.
I’m sure I could turn this roller coaster analogy into a strange reality show if I thought about it long enough. But now I’m wondering why this genre appeals to people who don’t necessarily like either roller coaster or wacky analogies. What do you think?
Thanks to those who joined the discussion about the level of sluttiness for romance heroines! The winner of the Valentine Giveaway Hop (as selected by a random number generator) is Mayra Calvani. She wins her choice of any of my books. I had a lot of fun with this event so I’m sure I will join in another one soon. I need another excuse to use the random number generator again!